The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 6

They broke from their careful ranks and began to scramble over the stone arch, a few more falling screaming into the unknown depths.  Callindra forced herself to ignore them and to focus on the ranks of bipedal lizards who turned as one to focus on what had been happening behind them.

Emerald green ichor oozed from their mouths and they moved in earie unison.  Their motions were uncoordinated, almost as though someone was controlling them and didn’t quite know how to make them move properly.  Most unnerving was the absolute silence that accompanied their approach.

With a shout of defiance, Callindra pushed past the frightened townsfolk and imposed herself between them and the monsters.  She looked back at the pale faces of the guardsmen who she had been scouting with and growled, “Get up here and defend your family’s you cowards!”

This challenge seemed to stiffen their spines a touch and they lost some of their hesitancy.  The movements of their enemies began to smooth out but their unified movement remained, many of them falling off into the yawning chasm when the edge didn’t match up with their ranks.  Tryst and Vilhylm moved to flank her and bolts of Arcane Power flew from Cronos where he stood at the bridge head, chivying the people across.

“We need to keep them moving and confused.”  Vilhylm said, “If they keep having to move in other directions perhaps we can cause more of them to fall.”

With a grin, Callindra darted forward and summoned a vicious blast of wind from Brightfang’s edge, blowing half a dozen of them over the edge, but unfortunately this put her close enough to them to be nearly surrounded.  When she thought she might be overwhelmed, the contingent of guards she had shamed into fighting slammed into the monsters in a loosely organized wedge, hacking limbs from bodies and opening dreadful wounds as they chopped their way to her side.

“You’re late!”  She said, grinning fiercely at their leader.  He grinned back, throwing a mock salute when the claws of one of the lizard men wrapped around his neck from behind, cutting his throat to the spine and spraying her with his arterial blood.

It was all they could do to break free.  The floor became slick with blood and viscera, many of their companions were left motionless on the ground behind them and Callindra noted absently that she had sustained several rather severe wounds.  She had no time to feel the pain now though, and Jorda’s gift was doing its best to staunch the bleeding.

A shout from the bridge made her turn.  The last of the refugees was at the midpoint and Cronos was frantically waving at them.  Tryst and Vilhylm were fighting side by side, Tryst protecting the spear wielding Vilhylm with his shield while the tall, dark man efficiently skewered their enemies from a distance, an old military technique.

“Fall back to the bridge!”  She shouted to her dwindling escort.  “I can hold them here briefly!”

Some of them hesitated, a move that cost some their lives and others just wounds.  The rest fled in a disordered mob, leaving her to face the ravening horde on her own.  Raising Brightfang over her head, she whipped him down in a series of slashing arcs, calling on the Wind to gift her with speed.  She could feel it wrap around her, calling to her, entreating her to trust it.

To the horror of the onlookers, she turned and sprinted down the line of enemies fast enough that her long braid streamed out like a banner, the end snapping in the wind.  Instead of turning aside, she simply ran off the edge of the chasm closely followed by the two score monsters that were close on her heels.

The winds rose beneath her, blowing her hair out of its braid to lash around her in a confusing tangle, but as her enemies plunged silently to their deaths, she kept running.  Somehow the breezes gathered beneath her, allowing her feet to land on nothing but air.  It took an enormous amount of effort to maintain the concentration though, and by the time she had reached the bridge a mere score paces away, her body was trembling from the effort.

Strong hands steadied her, “That was quite a stunt.”  Vilhylm said.

“We can’t relax yet.”  She replied grimly, pointing to where the first line of monsters were advancing up the bottom of the bridge.

They moved much more carefully and slowly than they had before, and not with as much unified purpose.  Whatever held sway over them was having to be precise lest it lose the majority of its fighting force to the depths of the chasm.

“So what was this plan of yours Cronos?”  Callindra said, her voice tight with barely controlled fear and obvious exhaustion.

“We wait.  Just a few moments more should suffice.”  He began chanting under his breath the way he always did before he used magic.  She never understood why he needed to do such things, but then again he seemed disturbed by her silent magic and her lack of a spell book.

When their foes were three blade lengths away, Cronos finished his spell.  A jet of thick black liquid shot from his hands to coat the narrow bridge with a slippery tar like substance.  The lead lizard men continued forward and lost their balance immediately, falling into the depths below.

“OK, now we run before the spell wears off!”  Cronos said, grinning like a child.

Wishing she had a way of collapsing the entire bridge, Callindra turned to go.  She didn’t look back.

After a week of travel, they had managed to get the majority of the refugees to the farm of Tom Gild.  The farmer had survived the riots in Levora but one of his sons had been slain and another was gravely wounded.

“I’ll welcome th help!”  He had said, smiling at the several hundred people.  “Hells, I didn’t make it out with my team, barely survived myself.  Without the horses I was wondering how I’d be able to get th planting done, but if these folk are willing we can do it by hand and have enough that none of us need go hungry.”

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Shirasiau Sai’Li

Shirasiau Sai’Li stood before the mirror in her dressing room, water dripping from her naked body as two attendants came to dry her with soft felted towels and powder her skin with talc.  She allowed her eyes to drift over the curves of her body and smiled in satisfaction.  She was perfect. The balance of beauty, grace and strength that had been achieved through countless hours of practice and training.

“Sha.   The dark blue eye makeup, ivory face paint and black lip covering today.”  She gestured with a hand that had inch long lacquered fingernails.  “Ling.  I desire the Kimono with the scenes of ocean.  The gray, seafoam green, surf blue and white.”

The two women retreated silently and returned with the requested accoutrements within a few moments.  They likely had anticipated her mood; good servants always did.  Oh how she would miss her servants.  After a half candlemark, she was dressed to her satisfaction and holding her parasol demurely in one hand as she descended the stairs to have tea with her father.

“My little Sai’Li.”  Shirasiau Kanimari, the Lord of the Silk Fortress and Master of the Saffron Trading Company greeted her with a smile that did not touch his eyes.  “How does my Third Daughter fare this morning?”

“I am well Father.”  She said with a formal bow.  “Please allow me to make the tea.”

Without waiting, she tucked her parasol into her Obi, moved to the sideboard and poured boiling water into a small cup, spooned the tea powder into it and whipped it into a froth.  She brought two warm cups of tea with a tall cone of froth, demurely sliding one of the cups across the table to him before kneeling on the tatami on her side of the table.

For a time, all was normal.  the beautiful birds in the garden outside sang, a soft breeze blew the scent of flowering trees into the room and Sai’Li savored the complex flavor of her tea.  Then her father interrupted the silence.

“I have a mission for you Third Daughter.  Our holdings are in danger now that this new land has appeared.”  Kanimari took up his cup and sipped, sighing in pure satisfaction, “As much as it pains me, this means one of my children must go forth and forge new pathways, set up new contacts and represent our Family.”

Sai’Li’s tea sat getting cold on the tabletop and she stared at him for a few heartbeats.  “Father you cannot mean-“

His hand slammed down on the tabletop, not hard enough to make the cups jump but with the open flat striking like a thunderclap.  “I will have obedience from my children.”  He remarked calmly, taking another sip of tea.

Her lower lip trembled even though she tried to stop it, “Father, how have I upset you?  What have I done to disappoint you?”

“Sai’Li, my darling, you have done nothing to upset or disappoint me.”  He said, taking another drink of his tea.  “I have chosen you because of your exceptional skill.”

The door opened and a servant walked carefully through it, holding a tray with bowls of Miso soup and sticky rice.  He set it on the table and began to bow and retreat.  Something caught Sai’Li’s attention and she moved a hand faster than the blink of an eye, taking her fan from the front of her Obi and striking him on the wrist.

A dagger clattered to the floor at his feet as he shrieked in pain as the razor edges the fan was tipped with sliced effortlessly through his flesh.  Green bubbling foam rose from the wound and the servant fell twitching to the floor.  Within a few moments, he was dead.

“Father.  This is most uncouth.”  Sai’Li said, standing, opening her fan in front of her mouth and giving him a look of mild reproach.  “I must insist that this kind of behavior be reserved for after morning tea.”

Kanimari laughed, a genuine and pleased sound.  “Now you see Third Daughter why I wish you to be our emissary on this mission.  Not only are you clever, you also have the reflexes and mercy of a hunting cobra.  You struck without hesitation and killed without question.”

“But father.  The rugged outdoors?  How will I survive?”  Her voice grew slightly desperate, “You do not really expect me to walk among savages and sleep on the ground?”

“I have of course taken care of that.”  He said with a wry smile.  “Ignis has agreed to be your escort, and I am sure we can find you a pavilion to sleep in.”

Sai’Li folded onto a couch with the delicate grace of a shower of Sakura petals.  “Honored father, you surely cannot mean it.  The scarred Dwarf?  The arsonist?  The crude one?”

“Kanimari, you didn’t mention she was such a prissy whelp.”  Ignis strode into the room accompanied by the smell of old smoke.  “Don’t expect we’ll be traveling much roads, not sure a pavilion or such a delicate flower will be able to manage. Gah, I’ll be making my favor owed a good one for this task.”

Kanimari’s eyes narrowed for a moment at the use of his given name, but… the Dwarf hadn’t given offense intentionally.  Or if he had, it was a calculated risk to show the depth of the favor he was expecting.

“I believe our conversation regarding the safety and security of wild areas was included in the risk and compensation analysis?”  He said, making a minute gesture with his hand.  “Please, won’t you sit?”

Sai’Li saw it and rose silently and gracefully from where she had reclined.  With a whisper of silk, she fixed another cup of tea.  Intuitively, she chose the Dragonfire tea, the sharpest flavor that had been roasted until it was heavy with smoke and bitter as an adder’s sting.

Ignis stumped around the table, nearly tripped over the dead body and paused, raising an eyebrow at Kanimari.  The man’s lips rose in a very slight smile that did not touch his eyes.

“An unfortunate accident.  This fool thought perhaps he might try and sink a knife into my Third Daughter’s back when she was not looking.  As you can see, though she may be a delicate flower, her thorns are long and sharp.

“These new and uncharted lands have great potential for development.”  Kanimari continued, “Of course you will wish to mitigate that development and secure some unspoiled land, perhaps to set up a new Circle since I have heard rumors that you were cast out of yours?”

Ignis grunted, snatching the porcelain cup of tea from the table as soon as Sai’Li put it down and tossing it back without tasting it.  She stared at him, horrified, but said nothing.

“Someday you’re gonna have to tell me who keeps feeding you these juicy tidbits.”  He said holding his cup out to Sai’Li as though he expected her to simply pour more tea into it.  At a gesture from Kanimari, she took it and prepared a second cup.  Despite the way he was treating her tea, the ceremony was sacred and she made a second perfect cup.

“If you pause to appreciate the complexity of this blend friend Dwarf, you may discover it has characters you admire.”  Sai’Li said as she set the tea on the table next to Ignis.

He took a mouthful and swished it around before swallowing.  “All I taste is smoke.  But of course, I was just out in a big fire in … well I don’t need to get into that do I?”

“Honored father, if I may I must retire to prepare for my exile.”  Sai’Li said mournfully, “With your permission I will withdraw that I may ready my things and put my affairs in order.

“Third Daughter, I have something for you before you depart.”  Kanimari said, his smile touched the corner of his eyes this time as he extended an envelope on a silver tray.

She took it, broke the seal with a lacquered nail and read it carefully.  Her eyes widened slightly; something that was as good as a startled shout in her family and she snapped her fan open in front of her face to hide the brief flash of emotion.

“You honor me father.  I shall, as always, endeavor to do my best to ensure the best interests of the Family and Saffron Trading are well represented.”  She bowed and backed up three paces before withdrawing.

Kanimari chuckled, a mirthless sound.  “Her sisters will be furious of course.”  He remarked to Ignis.

“I don’t give a wet rat for your family politics.”  The Dwarf said, drinking the rest of his tea in a gulp.  “You got that contract?”

Kanimari laughed again and produced a roll of parchment with a long and carefully worded contract on it.  With an effort of will, Ignis gestured, and the parchment vanished in a flash of flame and smoke.

“You got my word.  If that ain’t enough for ya then flame burn your thrice cursed mission to ash.”

The man snapped his fingers twice, his eyes not leaving the Dwarf’s face.  Servants came in to clean the table top with lavender scented water and another brought a small ramekin of steaming water with a slender ceramic jar inside.  Two tiny cups accompanied it.

“I had planned for this contingency of course.”  He said calmly, “We will seal the contract in a more traditional and Dwarven way.  With our word and with a drink.  I trust that hot sake will be acceptable?”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 5

The roar of a waterfall was audible long before they reached it.  Callindra turned to look at her friends and motioned for them to come near.

“I’ll sneak ahead.”  She whispered, “Keep the rest of them quiet.  Once I know it’s safe I’ll come get the rest of you.  Or if it’s not safe I’ll come tell you and we’ll figure it out.”

After they had given their grudging assent, she snuck out carefully eventually dropping to a crawl by the time she reached the edge of a large drop off.  The scene below her was breathtaking.  An underground river was cascading down the side of an immense cavern and had carved a riverbed through the stone, only leaving a slender arch of bedrock that spanned the gap.

The thunder of falling water all but deafened her and the mist that rose from the gorge it vanished into made it very difficult to see.  She sat still for a few minutes, just watching and trying to take in the enormity of it all.  A slight motion against the falling water caught her eye, a swirling in the mist that barely resolved into a humanoid creature with a long tail.

Now that she saw one, she began to see dozens, if not hundreds of the creatures they’d fought before standing before the waterfall or milling about aimlessly nearby.  Beyond them she could feel the wild breezes from the outside dancing and playing between her and an opening to the outside.

Callindra let out a sob of relief.  An exit to the outside.  Until she saw a way out, she hadn’t realized just how closed in she felt in the caves.  It took an extreme act of will to stay put, even though she knew it would be tantamount to suicide to try and run past all the lizard creatures.  Even more difficult was backing away to the others where they stood in the stagnant, still cave air.

“There’s a way out, but the only way to get there is to cross a bridge defended by a hundred or more of those lizard things.”  Callindra looked back at the refugees huddling together more to stave off fear than cold she thought.

“Hardly ideal.”  Tryst said dryly.

“Try rotting impossible!”  Said Cronos, “We can’t possibly sneak across ourselves, let alone herd this lot through without being seen.”

“With us being this close, it’s actually likely only a matter of time before they hear this unruly mob and bring the fight to us.”  Vilhylm said.  “Whatever we’re going to do, we need to do it quickly.”

“What if we tried something like we did in that Kobold cave outside of Vonlar?”  Callindra mused, “I use magic to make a noise, lure them away and then while we lead them on a merry chase, the refugees escape.  Not all these men are completely worthless… a few have bows, we might be able to make a decent fight of things.”

“Not if there are a hundred or more of them.”  Vilhylm said, “Even if we could force them to come at us singly or in pairs that would be very long odds.”

“All we need to do is distract them for long enough for the refugees to get over the bridge.”  Cronos said with a feral grin.  “Then after we get across I can take care of the rest.  It’s a narrow bridge right Callindra?  No railings?”

“It’s really just a narrow piece of granite that has been exposed from the erosion of the limestone around it.”  Callindra said, “That might be a problem too, since the mist from the waterfall has likely made the footing uncertain at best.”

“Wonderful.”  Vilhylm drawled, “A hastily assembled, poorly thought out and dangerous plan that’s likely to get us all killed along with the folk who are trusting their lives to us.”

“Have you got a better idea?”  Asked Callindra with an arched eyebrow.

“Other than going back the way we came and hoping there’s another exit somewhere else, not really.”  He retorted, “But that doesn’t mean it’s a good plan or that I like it.”

“Who gets the honor of selling it to the refugees?”  Tryst asked, and Callindra started to chuckle at him.  As his face took on an even more wounded expression she couldn’t hold back the laughter and eventually it spilled over into the others.

“Well I think you should be the one to tell them.”  He said, frowning at her.  “It’s your bedamned plan, let them hear it from you!”

“I’ll tell them if you want Tryst, but they won’t like it coming from me.”  She said, still smiling, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you curse before.”

Tryst sighed in resignation and went off to speak to the assembled survivors.  Cronos, Vilhylm and Callindra began to creep up to where they could see down into the cavern.  Something was changing, the face of the waterfall began to reflect flickering green lights and all the creatures turned toward it.

“What are you doing?”  Cronos asked, glaring at Callindra.  “We aren’t ready yet.”

“It’s not me.”  She replied, “But now might be our best chance at getting these people out.  See, they’re all moving toward the waterfall, they all have their backs to us.”

“True, but it only takes one of them turning around to blow the whole thing.”  Vilhylm said.

“Hey, same goes for if they see through whatever illusion I could conjure up.”  Callindra countered, “Who knows how long this will last.  We need to get them moving!”  She all but sprinted back down to where the people were splitting into groups, ten civilians with three warriors as guards in each.

“What is happening Callindra?”  Tryst asked, giving her an annoyed frown.

“Some kind of ritual or something, but the important thing is it’s a distraction.  If we move quickly and quietly we might be able to escape before they even notice we’re here!  Hurry!”

“Are you sure it’s a good idea?”  Tryst said skeptically, but many of the groups were already moving.

“It’s as good of a plan as the other, I mean… it’s not like we could keep these things distracted forever and at least this way they have a running start!”  She punched him in the arm, her eyes gleaming with excitement, “Come on, you’re gonna miss all the fun.”

Tryst narrowed his eyes, “Callindra, this is a serious situation.  People could die.  People are likely to die.  We very well might die.  This flippant attitude of yours is unacceptable.”

“Come on Tryst.”  She said, smiling, “I have to laugh at death.  It’s either that or run screaming.”

He sighed, “You are impossible, but you’re right on one account.  We must move quickly.  This is likely our best chance.”

“You’re too serious.”  Callindra said, but she couldn’t contain the quaver in her voice.  “Come on, let’s get these sheep moving.”

Tryst looked at her, a kind of understanding and empathy beginning to dawn on him.  “Right.”  He said gruffly, “Let’s go.”

By the time they had gotten back up the incline, a quarter of the refugees had begun crossing the stone bridge.  The thunder of the waterfall drowned out any noise they might be making and by some miracle, none of them had fallen off the narrow, slippery surface.  Their presence hurried the others along, but also made them careless.  The first dozen had crossed and were sneaking out of the exit when one of the older men lost his footing and plunged over the edge with a piercing cry.

Without waiting to see what the reaction of the lizard people would be, Callindra sprinted toward them, Brightfang jumping into her hand.  “Run!”  She yelled to the refugees she passed, “RUN!!!”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 4

“You must learn to control the flames of Maegera if you wish to master the Adamantine forge.”  Dethen said, “And in order to control Maegera’s fire, you will have to conquer your fear of him.”

“Only a fool wouldn’t be afraid of an ancient and malevolent being of primordial fire…” He trailed off and belatedly added “Master.”

“This is true Apprentice, however I didn’t say to stop being afraid; I said to conquer your fear.  Do not let it rule your actions, but instead allow it to advise.  Fear of this monster is an appropriate reaction until you realize that it is bound.”

Durrak flinched as he spoke the words in Ignan, the language of Flame itself, which opened the Gate to Maegera’s fire.  The elemental flame roared forth, bathing the ingot of Adamantine in impossible heat.  The metal shimmered and began to run in rivulets down into a flat mold almost the same shape as the sword he would eventually be making from it.

Wearing nothing but an enchanted apron over a loincloth, Durrak took a deep breath and picked up his hammer and squared his shoulders.  This was the only way he was going to be able to face his parents again.  He had to surpass their expectations.  There was no way he was going to fail.

“LITTLE MAGGOT.”  A voice slammed its way into his skull.  “WHAT IS IT YOU WANT?”  This wasn’t supposed to happen, the monster was supposed to be contained!

In spite of the pressure he felt crushing his body, Durrak raised his chin.  He was a Dwarf after all, and he had his pride.  If Maegera was going to kill him, then he was going to look the demon in his face when it happened.

“I don’t want to fail my parents oh Master of the eternal flame.  I want to live up to the expectations of my family, my clan and my God.”

“IS THAT SO?  AND WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I WILL HELP YOU?”  The assault on his entire body and soul was more than he could take and he knew it.

“Why not?” He asked, “What else are you doing?”

Maegera’s laugh shook the marrow of his bones, “YOU HAVE SPIRIT YOUNG CHILDE OF THE EARTH.  THE LAST OF YOUR KIND I SPOKE TO THUS BROKE HIS SKULL WITH HIS FORGE HAMMER TRYING TO BASH ME OUT YET YOU HAVE ENOUGH SPARK TO MAKE DEMANDS.  VERY WELL, THE BLADES YOU WISH SHALL BE FORGED IF YOU HAVE THE FORTITUDE TO ACCOMPLISH IT.”

Durrak’s body trembled with the effort of swinging the hammer.  Sweat poured from his body and his breath came in short gasps.  He refused to allow his hand to unclench from the haft of the long handled forge hammer.  The Ignan words of dismissal fell from his lips like lead and the fires cut off as though they’d never been there.  Two flawless swords, each three paces long and made of the strange marbled metal that only one forge he knew of could melt lay cooling on the stone workbench.

“DO NOT QUENCH THEM LITTLE MAGGOT.” Maegera’s voice echoed in his mind, “THEY WILL COOL IN THEIR OWN TIME.”

Durrak wore his exhaustion like a cloak, but he was satisfied.  Now he would be able to concentrate on what gave him passion.  Now he could make jewelry.

A voice that caressed his mind like a tongue of flame touching dry wood.  It carried with it the ring of a thousand distant forge hammers and the implacable strength of the bones of the earth.

“You have done well to bend the metal and flame to your will.  It shows the mettle that is needed to be forged properly.”

Durrak shuddered as the touch of Thraingaar slipped from his mind.  Surely he had imagined his God’s presence.  He was nothing but the first son of the third Noble House.  His parents were mere Battle Leaders and Speakers.  Perhaps more important than some, but not enough to be of anyone’s notice.  Certainly not the God of the Forge.

Callindra swore, the oath drawing a startled glance from one of Tanner’s warriors who was scouting ahead with her.  None of his men could get used to her being a warrior, her not being in a dress or her being a competent scout.  She was stuck halfway between exasperation and smiling in triumph.

“Another god rotting dead end.”  She concluded, “Go back and inform the others.”

He jerked awkwardly and saluted, turning to run back as she walked along the wall, double checking for passages that might have been missed.  A glimmer of light caught her eye, and although she thought it likely one of the many clumps of strange phosphorescent moss that grew down here, she wasn’t taking any chances.

The wall exploded in a twisted tangle of misshapen arms and legs and only Callindra’s lightning reflexes saved her from going down beneath the onslaught of a half dozen monsters with scaly skin and glowing emerald eyes.  They hissed in hunger and closed with her more quickly than she thought possible, raking at her with wickedly long claws.

Down here the winds weren’t as responsive to her, being stagnant things that crept around corners and slunk through cracks instead of the vast unstoppable forces that lived on the surface.  Unaware of her reliance on their strength and speed, Callindra jumped to one side a tiny bit too slowly and the curving claws tore into her side.  They cut through the boiled leather of her armor with ease and brought a spray of blood with them as they exited her flesh.

The impact of the blow spun Callindra in a stumbling circle, off balance and leaving her guard down.  With snarls, the others leaped at her in unison.  She managed to turn the stumbling turn into a spin and dropped to a crouch, whipping Brightfang through the thighs of one of her attackers.  The monster fell back and another one screamed in rage as a spear drove into its chest, thrown from behind her.

Fighting desperately, she turned a claw strike aside with her sword and dropped flat to avoid another swipe.  The warrior she had sent back to report ran into the fray, a short sword in one hand and a dagger in the other as he attacked silently from one side.  The creatures had been so focused on Callindra that he managed to incapacitate one of them before two fell on him in a flurry of claws and teeth.

A bestial roar announced the arrival of Vilhylm wearing the mask that gave him immense strength.  He cannoned into the side of one of the lizard creatures, crushing it against the wall with enough force to pulverize its bones.  In a flurry of strikes, the other arms men who followed Vilhylm hacked the remaining creatures to pieces.

There were a few human forms laying among the reptilian dead.  Callindra forced herself not to think of it; there was a butcher’s bill to pay to escape these cursed caves and she was just grateful not to be added to the tally.  At least not yet.

She looked past the soldiers making sure of the dead and joined Vilhylm, looking into the hole the monsters had left in the wall.  Beyond was a smoothly sloping tunnel that curved around and down on one side and up at a similar angle on the other.  To Callindra’s surprise and pleasure, a wind from the outside twined around her ankles like a purring cat before leaping up to tease the wrist thick braid of hair that fell to her waist.

“What is it?”  Vilhylm asked, giving her a quizzical look.

Realizing she was smiling, Callindra grinned even broader.  “There’s a way out.  Fresh air is blowing up this tunnel.”  Her words echoed in the smooth walled passageway and realized it wasn’t natural cavern, it was worked stone.

Vilhylm seemed to have noticed it as well.  “Get the others.  We need to move carefully and quietly.  There may be more of those things.”

Reluctant to leave the fresh breeze, Callindra turned back, dispatching the warriors back through the caverns to bring the main group of refugees from where they rested under the watchful eyes of Cronos and Tryst.

Alexander Brigit Macedon: Intro

Author’s note: This is just an introductory piece for a collaborative writing project I’m participating in… there may be more to follow if things pan out.  Hope you enjoy.

The door opened, to Lex’s and he knew it was a regular since they didn’t open it far enough to allow the steel edge to come in contact with the five-foot length of pipe he had near the wall.  The clang was enough to make everyone think twice about mistreating his door.

He liked his door.  He’d found it in a surplus depot and paid nearly two thousand dollars for it.  The inlaid oak, ash and walnut made interesting contrast and the carving of a huge tree that grew up it matched the custom brass hinges he’d had made to look like tree leaves, branches and roots.  Most people didn’t notice his favorite part though.  Just above the polished brass kick plate, the roots of the tree grew not into soil but into a field of bones.  Subtle, but macabre.  Just his style.

Recognizing the man’s silhouette even as he began to walk down the three stairs that would bring him into the bar, Alexander took down a bottle of Belvedere vodka and mixed a gimlet.  He was just garnishing the drink with a twist of lime when Investigator Jon Lee slid into his usual seat at the bar.

“How do you know it’s me?  I’m not even wearing my normal uniform today.”  Jon was one of NYC’s finest.  He also only came to Lex’s when he was off duty and had a rough day.  His usual ankle length cashmere coat was indeed missing; an oddity considering the sleet rattling against the half windows that faced the street.

“I got an eye for people.”  Alex said with a shrug.  “Where’s your coat, this weather is shite.”

Jon grimaced.  “Dry cleaner’s.”  He took a drink and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Alex grunted, but didn’t say anything else.  When Jon’s drink was empty another one appeared in front of him like magic.  He closed his hands around it and glanced around the mostly empty bar.  The usual two old men in the corner were playing chess, each with a pint of Alexander’s bitter ale close at hand.  A bored looking woman sat next to a young man who was ignoring her in favor of his phone.  Nobody was within earshot.

“It was bad.  That fire on 87th?  Well, I’ve heard of spontaneous human combustion but I thought it was a myth or something.”  He shuddered and placed the cold glass against his forehead.  “Nothing else it could have been though.  Burned all the way through her middle right where she was laying in bed.  Didn’t so much as set the sheets on fire.”

“Huh.  Well.  At least the building didn’t burn.”  Alex looked over and saw the girl catch his eye.  “Excuse me Jon.”

He glided down the bar, moving smoothly and silently especially for a man his size.  Looming up behind the man he rumbled, “What can I get you Miss?”  Carefully keeping his expression blank, Alexander chuckled inwardly as the young man started and almost dropped his phone.

“Can I have an appletini?”  She asked.

“No miss, I don’t carry that apple garbage.  I’d gladly make you a regular martini or perhaps a Cosmopolitan?”  Alex said, crossing his thick arms over his chest.  With the black tshirt and white apron, it made him look much less threatening than his words might have initially suggested.  Like a favorite uncle.

“What’s in a Cosmopolitan?”  She asked.

“Vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice.”  Her date said with an annoyed look first at Alex and then at her.

“My Cosmopolitan has Vodka, Cointreau, freshly squeezed lime juice and real cranberry juice.”  Alex said smoothly, “Combined and shaken before being poured into a martini glass and garnished with a twisted rind of lime and lemon.”

“That sounds pretty good actually.”  She said, smiling.

“And for you sir?” Alex asked, looking at the man.

“Bud light.”  He said.

Alex sighed, shook his head and pointed a finger the size of a bratwurst at the chalk board behind the bar.  It listed the available beers with the alcohol content, serving size and price.  At the bottom was written ‘Bud Light.  3.2% ABV 12 oz can. $50.00’

“Fifty Dollars?”  The guy exploded, but Alex pointed to the sign hanging below it which read.

‘This is a brewpub.  I make these beers.  If you want that piss water you’d better be willing to pay me for the insult.’

“I have a very nice British Blonde Ale.” Alex said patiently in a voice that suggested he’d said the same thing hundreds of times.  He pointed to the top beer on the list named ‘Blondes Have More Fun’. “It’s as close as you’re gonna get here.”

“Yeah.  Sure.”  He said shortly.

With an inward chuckle, Alexander went back to the bar and pulled a pint of Blonde and then mixed the perfect Cosmo.  After serving the drinks, he brought a fresh pair of pints to the chess players and returned to where Jon was finishing his second gimlet.  He placed a glass of water in front of the cop and smiled inwardly again at the surprised look his face.

“How’d you know I didn’t want another?”  Jon asked, “You always seem to know exactly what to do or say.”

“Bartender’s instinct.  We know you better than your lover does.  You tell us stuff you wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else.  We get ta know ya.”  He let the smile travel from his mind to his lips, “These are on the house.  You’ve had a rough one lad, take all the time ya need.”

“Thanks Alexander.  You’re a good man.”

“Ain’t nothing.”  He said, turning to take a bottle of scotch from the top shelf.  Just as he was finishing pouring a double shot of Laphroig over ice.  He had a feeling an old friend was about to walk through the door, and all Duff Bowman ever ordered was Laphroig on the rocks.

Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Epilogue

“She WHAT?”  General Hallbeck had officially lost his cool.

“Eugene says she has left sir.  After a fight in which she killed the solider you had assigned to watch over her.”  His aide put a manila folder on his desk.  “Here are the initial crime scene photos.  There wasn’t anything to tie her directly to the scene as far as forensics are concerned, but the evidence is fairly obvious to our intelligence operatives.”

“I don’t believe this.”  Hallbeck poured himself a glass of whisky neat to distract himself.  “What does damage control look like?”

“There’s more sir.”  She continued, “Our reports also indicate that Chelsea Daceiron was the one who initiated hostilities.  Eyewitnesses say she almost killed a bystander even though he was heavily armed.  Our posthumous seems to suggest that her latest Remix damaged her medulla, making her angry, hostile and dangerously volatile.  It is honestly a wonder she lasted this long.”

“How did we miss it?”  He growled, grinding his teeth.  “God DAMN it, we have protocols in place to catch this kind of thing.”

“I believe she bribed her physician sir.”  She said primly, “I cannot prove it, however if the medical records were not falsified, Daceiron’s deterioration was much faster than any we have seen in the past.”

“Why hasn’t the tracking program been initiated yet?”  Hallbeck demanded, taking a slug of his scotch to settle his nerves.  “Damn it that’s why we implemented it in the first place.”

“We were tracking her up until approximately twenty-two hundred last night sir.”  She lost her patience and flipped open the folder she had set down, reading from sheets it contained.  “At that time the program was shut down and the tracking signal was lost.”

“They said it couldn’t be shut down.”  The general growled, “They said it was untraceable and that it would destroy any logical system that attempted to remove it.”

“Yes.  Well I suppose that is possible, however she continued to function after our attempts to activate the information harvesting portion we added to the tracking and monitoring software failed to penetrate the system’s firewall.”  She said, flipping a page.  “At that point, we saw some rather unusual activity in the program’s operating algorithms and it crashed.”

“So we’re dead in the water?  We have no way of tracking or finding her, all our eyes on her are gone?”  Hallbeck looked down, surprised to see his glass was empty.  He poured himself another.

“That is correct sir.”  She said, “However, we have agents monitoring the Scott’s house, her friend David’s and Eugene’s current residence as well.  We’ve tapped her bank accounts, put her face on watch lists that will trigger our surveillance teams and we’re working on a system that will use face recognition software to pinpoint her location by accessing publicly available camera systems.”

General Hallbeck blinked and looked at her.  She was a Lieutenant who had been working with him on this project for the last year or two. Caarlgard was her name and she was beyond perfect for the position.  She had been able to manipulate everyone into the positions he required with perfect ease, even going as far as to use what they knew of the artificial intelligence against itself.  Without that Victoria Scott likely wouldn’t ever have installed any of their software in the first place.

That was just about all he knew about her though.  It was time to change that.

Yuen-Ja sat watching her parents.  She didn’t think of them as her adopted parents anymore, they had accepted her in ways her blood never had.

“I am sorry.”  She said, “Mom, daddy, I didn’t tell you because Victoria did not want me to and I love her.  Things have changed now, she is running and scared and in danger.  I want you to know everything.”

“She… she…”  Daddy composed himself with effort, “She has a thing like that living inside her head?”

“Oh my baby.  My poor poor baby.”  Mom said, tears streaming down her cheeks.  “We never should have let her do this.”

“No!”  Yuen-Ja exclaimed, “You don’t understand, Adam is wonderful.  He is good, he is on our side.  He will help to protect her, I swear it by my honor.”

“But that thing is responsible for her getting hurt.”

“Yes mom, but without his actions she would have died.  Eugene too.  All the members of Squad Seventeen.”  She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, “And the metal monster who eventually was killed would have been free.  I cannot even imagine what evil would have ensued had it survived.”

“So she’s out there all alone is she?”  Daddy said, a stricken look on his face.  “Out on the streets, nobody to help her?  No money, torn clothes, no shelter and no transportation?”  He put his arm around mom as she began to cry harder.

“Oh no.  She is never alone.”  Yuen-Ja said seriously, “Adam is always with her.  Please, do not worry so much.  Once this has all settled down she will be able to return.  I know she will be in contact with us soon also.  My sister is a strong, brilliant and determined woman.  She will be OK.”

“That THING isn’t company!”  Mom burst out, “It can’t help her if someone tries to hurt her!”

“Yes he can.”  Yuen-Ja said quietly, “I have seen her fight and win against an opponent who was far more experienced and prepared using only one leg.  It was their combined strength, skill and insight that brought them out safely.  He is a better companion than if she had one of us along.”

“He can’t make sure she has a blanket covering her or that she has enough food to eat though.”  Daddy said, squeezing mom tightly for a moment.

“I worry about her too, but there is nothing we can do but trust in her ability to handle herself.”  Yuen-Ja said.

“Thank you for telling us.”  Daddy said, “I only wish I’d known before.  The fighting, the injuries… I never would have let her out of my sight.”

“That is why she did not tell you and mom.”  Yuen-Ja said, “She would have put you in danger as well.  The people who have attacked her and Eugene would not stay away because you were there.  They are bad people.  Killers.”

She must have not kept her voice and face as smooth as she thought she had, because daddy extended his other arm and gathered her into his lap.  Leaning against him, Yuen-Ja relaxed and the tension and fear that had been building inside her broke.  The family sat holding one another, crying their fear and worry out and taking comfort from their strength.

David stared at his workbench.  The gleam of titanium and the flat black of Nano-muscle contrasted nicely.  Luckily he’d accumulated all the parts he needed for his latest revision of prosthetic legs from Eugene’s lab before those assholes blew it up and now it was time to begin the assembly.  Victoria was going to need them.

These legs were much different from the beautiful curves of carbon fiber with delicate hinging.  When he had started on them, his idea had been for these to be a utility prosthetic; one she could go rock climbing and hiking with.  Sturdy construction from lightweight but very durable components.  No fancy bells and whistles, just lots and lots of titanium cams, molecularly aligned titanium cables and thick strands of Nano-muscle fibers.

The feet were a prehensile X with thick modular pads that were easily replaced.  Instead of a human like knee and ankle, there were three ball joints that could move in a nearly infinite set of directions.  Without Adam’s help he never would have been able to program the controls for something this complex.  In the end, they would be incredibly versatile, although they would also be a bit heavier and therefore put more stress on Victoria’s leg sockets.  He was sure she could handle it though; Adam wouldn’t let her overdo it.

With a sigh, he picked up his tools and began to do the final checks.  There were always a few adjustments that needed to be made before the device was ready for testing.  Soon it might even be ready for field testing.

David’s fingers flew over the keyboard of his laptop.  He knew she wasn’t his girlfriend and that she didn’t return his feelings for her nearly as strongly as he felt them towards her.  In spite of that he was determined to do everything he could to help her.  Damn it if she wouldn’t accept affection then he would settle for making gifts for her.  Gifts that would reflect the twisted, complicated feelings he had for her.  Gifts that would protect her.